There’s a great poem by Ben Okri called ‘The Corner Shop’ which describes how “the micro-history
of the land filters/ through those baked bean cans/ those lightbulbs” and all “those items indispensable for daily living” that stand proudly on the shelves of local shops the world over.
I feel a sense of that history whenever I step over the threshold of my local shop in Tralee. I haven’t lived in my hometown for close to three decades but, even behind a face mask, the staff at Oaklands Daybreak still know who I am.
We have history, or micro-history, you see. It stretches back to the early 1970s when, as children, we brought back empty bottles and spent the penny returned on milk teeth and gobstoppers.
As a six-year-old, I remember asking: “How much are the penny sweets?” My once-and-future sidekick Angela Kelly guffawed at that, her small-girl brain much more logical than mine.
What I had been trying to articulate was a fear of price inflation, worrying that the coin in my clenched fist would not be enough. The price had not increased but, even if it had, you’d still have got something because that is what local shops do; they look after their customers, even six-year-olds with a cash crisis.
Come to think of it, I could tell the story of our early lives through the items we bought at our local shop; newspapers, milk, Sellotape, plasters, oxtail soup, emergency scones for unexpected visitors, HB ice-cream, a loaf of Barry’s bread.
I still miss Barry’s bread, the arán gan sárú (bread without rival) that was made at Barry’s on Rock St in Tralee for almost a century.
The family business closed in 2017 due to falling sales, with a loss of 21 jobs.
So many were gutted to see it go but, at the time, it was also noted that if all those so sad to see its demise had bought its products, it might not have closed at all.
Shop local is not just a slogan, it is a way of life that bolsters the fabric of the communities in our towns and villages. Every €10 spent locally generates €40 for the community, according to Isme, the association representing Irish small and medium enterprises.
In other words, every euro you spend at your local shop will make four laps around the community, breathing life into other small businesses, food suppliers, schools, local clubs, and organisations. We might remember that in the run-up to Christmas.
As Isme says, it is more important than ever now as Brexit puts extra charges on British orders and so many local businesses need support. Also, as it points out, “buying Irish adds to quality, traceability, sustainability, and value for money”.
But there is something else about shopping local that can’t be calculated in euro. Local shops have endured because, even in these days of supermarket chains and internet shopping, there is still a widespread desire to shop in a place where they know your name.
During the pandemic, local shops came into their own, providing a sort of “suburban life-support” system for communities, to quote Okri again. Or, at least, that is how it seems to me.
Those shops which managed to survive the economic challenges of a particularly hard-hit retail sector acted as a kind of social glue keeping the community together.
Going to the local shop, for me at least, feels a little like stepping into a multi-sided mirror where the local world is reflected back to you in little statements, such as “do you know who’s dead?” or “do you know who was in yesterday?”
I realised how much that meant to me during a visit last weekend to Tralee, where a number of shops have closed their doors. Is there any sadder sight than empty shop windows in a town centre? It leaves an awful gap, like a missing front tooth in a wide-mouthed smile.
Behind each of those windows is a story of pandemic-induced struggle and loss that is replicated a thousand-fold all around the country.
What a relief, then, to see that the doors of my local shop were still open. Oaklands Daybreak turned 60 this year and has been run by three generations of the same family since Betty O’Donoghue bought it in 1961.
It seems a little unfair to pick just one local shop when so many have bound communities together over the last year but in telling one story, perhaps it will shine a light on all. Also, this Christmas and last, Oaklands Daybreak did something that captures the essence of what it means to stand together during challenging times.
In a letter to customers, the O’Donoghue family (James, Jer, Jane, Sarah-Jane, Jamesie, Connor and Aoife) thanked the local community for their support:
Ask them how it’s been and they’ll tell you it’s been a struggle, but they are doing all right thanks to local support.
It’s what they did next that captures the kind of spirit that might see us through ongoing restrictions and storms, both literal and figurative. They sat down as a family and decided to give something back by hosting a Christmas market and providing a platform for other local businesses.
They are also fundraising for a local refuge that provides emergency accommodation to women and children forced out of their homes due to domestic abuse.
That, too, is part of the micro-history that is unfolding in every community in Ireland, even if we too readily ignore what happens behind closed doors.
An estimated one in four women experiences the horror of abuse, sexual violence, or coercive control in her own home, a stark reality laid bare by the pandemic.
The fundraiser is also timely as it coincides with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, which continues until Friday. The international campaign aims to bring about change, at every level, to end violence against women and girls.
Nearer to home, Women’s Aid is sharing stories from survivors to highlight the reality of domestic abuse. One of them, a poem entitled ‘Why did you not just leave?’ is particularly arresting. That, the writer explains, “is the absolute worst thing you could ever say to a victim of domestic abuse and has a massive impact on the recovery process after”.
It might provide some small comfort to know that local shoppers are reminded of the pervasive reality of domestic violence and have a mechanism to reach out in some small way as they go about their daily business. There are similar initiatives in other local shops around the country — a reminder that community spirit is a very tangible thing.
Meanwhile back in Oaklands Daybreak, Des O’Dowd enquires about everyone’s wellbeing as he rings up the messages. He’s been doing that for 30 years. I salute him and the thousands like him who too rarely get the thanks they deserve.